Time to Control WhatsApp Fake Forwards Factory

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WhatsApp was widely used to spread a false story of a child-lifting gang.

Facebook was in the news recently for influencing US presidential polls and for selling or sharing private data of users to third parties through Cambridge Analatica. That was dangerous. But what is more dangerous is the way WhatsApp is functioning unregulated and unchecked. WhatsApp is turning out to be a ‘killer’ and an indirect instigator of murders, violence, fear and crime.

How is WhatsApp a killer? Take the recent example of how 5 innocent people were lynched in Maharashtra on Sunday. Or how young Niloptal and Abjith, who went in search of ornamental fish in Assam, were lynched as they were mistaken to be child lifters. The message was spread through WhatsApp buy a habitual criminal who had a tiff with them earlier. So, is WhatsApp not in league with the killers as an abettor?

WhatsApp was widely used to spread a false story of a child-lifting gang who whisk away children and break open their skulls to devour their brain. There could not have been a more absurd story. But in rural backyards of Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, such was the fear that anyone walking on the streets was a suspect and if he or she did not know the local language, he or she was lynched.

WhatsApp was also largely responsible for the violence that rocked the Sterlite factory stir in Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) in Tamil Nadu. Radical outfits “Makkal Athikaram” circulated videos instigating people to bring down the Sterlite unit though violent means.­­­­

The social media platform is widely used by Pakistan handlers to instigate stone pelters in Kashmir.

WhatsApp is also infamous for spreading fear. The Nipah virus that hit Kerala was a classic example. Fear, cures, claims spread faster than the virus in Kerala.

WhatsApp has been grappling with such fake news and rumour-mongering problem in India, its largest base, where it has 200 million monthly active users. “More than 90-95% of the disinformation online originates on WhatsApp. The proportion was lower about a year ago. But it has increased significantly in the last 6-9 months,” Govindraj Ethiraj, cofounder of Boom Live, a fact-check and hoax-debunking website, was quoted in the Times of India.

WhatsApp is slowly waking up to the crisis. Administrators now have greater control over who can add people or change the group title. In the run up to next year’s elections, WhatsApp intends to step up education efforts so that people know about our safety features, as well as how to spot fake news and hoaxes. But in a country like India, would these work?

Why is WhatsApp difficult to control? The problem is that unlike Facebook or Twitter, a WhatsApp message does not show where it originated from, whether it was forwarded, or how many shares it has received.

It must be remembered that WhatsApp is the biggest media platform in India. And such a medium of mass consumption lacks traceability. In simple terms, WhatsApp is turning out to be a Frankenstein in our midst and constantly on the prowl.

India isn’t the only one with the fake news problem. This March, Egypt announced a fake news hotline for its citizens. In April, Malaysia introduced an Anti-Fake News Act, which has been criticized by many for being overly broad.

For a platform like WhatsApp, fixing accountability while at the same time maintaining user privacy is a tough call. But one way out for WhatsApp is to label forwarded messages. WhatsApp is testing this tool. To be seen as a responsible actor genuinely interested in fixing problems, WhatsApp should hold public consultations on changes to its platform. They need to be accountable to users at large. Otherwise, one day WhatsApp may be held for abetment to violence, crime and murder by courts. That day is not far off.